expired parking meter
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Parking-space requirements have reached their expiration date.

In Washington, D.C., almost four in 10 households don’t own a car, making it one of the most car-free cities in the country (nationally, an average 9 percent of households lack car access). So why are new buildings along the city’s Metro transit lines required to include parking spaces — four for every 1,000 square feet of commercial space?

D.C. city planners, watching the town’s car-ownership rate fall year after year, are finally asking that question themselves. At the end of this month, they plan to propose to the city’s Zoning Commission that parking requirements for buildings near transit stops be eliminated, following the lead of other cities like Denver, Philadelphia, L.A., and Brooklyn that have reduced or eliminated mandatory parking quotas.

In addition to making urban parking scarcer and more expensive, thus encouraging alternative forms of transportation, getting rid of parking requirements can save a lot of money, as Jared Green explained in Grist last year:

To grasp the magnitude of the problem, consider that there are 500 million surface parking lots in the U.S. alone. In some cities, parking lots take up one-third of all land area …

All of those parking lots are not only expensive but represent an opportunity lost. The average parking lot cost is $4,000 per space, with a space in an above-grade structure costing $20,000, and a space in an underground garage $30,000-$40,000. To give us some sense of the opportunity lost, [author Elan Ben-Joseph] says 1,713 square miles (the estimated size of all surface parking lots in the U.S. put together) could instead be used for spaces that generate 1 billion kilowatt-hours of solar power. With just 50 percent of that space covered with trees, this space could handle 2 billion cubic meters of stormwater runoff, generate 822,264 tons of oxygen, and remove 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Mandatory parking spaces are costly not just for city governments and developers but for citizens and businesses, too. By driving up the cost of construction, they increase rents, discourage foot traffic that neighborhood businesses depend on, and make traffic worse. And, as this photo essay from Sightline shows, they make cityscapes uglier.

The Wall Street Journal reports that D.C. has already learned the hard way how out of date its 50-year-old parking requirements are:

In 2008, the District spent $47 million to build a 1,000-space parking garage under the new DC USA multilevel shopping center. The city’s zoning code mandated four parking spots for every 1,000 square feet of commercial space. But the developer, Grid Properties, persuaded city officials to cut the required total by nearly half.

Still, those 1,000 spaces turned out to be more than needed, because many shoppers ride the Metro to the mall. The garage languished more than half empty until the city courted nearby businesses to let employees park there. “That really hurt, to pay for a parking garage that was hardly used,” [Harriet Tregoning, director of the city’s Office of Planning,] said.

Some in D.C. worry that things could get chaotic if developers simply stop building parking spaces (after all, 61 percent of D.C. households do own cars; it’s not Manhattan yet). A Grid Properties principal suggests reducing parking requirements as a more reasonable stepping stone. For one of the most expensive cities in the country, even such a small change could make a difference.

But don’t worry, drivers: Parking is not disappearing even in dense urban areas. In Brooklyn, where residential parking requirements were recently reduced, new parking spots are coming — they’ll just be a lot sleeker and fancier than the old kind. The city has finally given the green light to developers to break ground on Willoughby Square, a long-awaited public park in Brooklyn that will be financed in part with the proceeds from a state-of-the-art underground parking complex. This is not your grandma’s garage, The New York Times explains:

To park at the garage, drivers will pull their cars into one of 12 entry rooms, where plasma screens, mirrors and laser scanners help direct the vehicle into the correct position. The driver then locks the car, takes the keys and heads to a kiosk to answer a few safety questions before swiping a credit card or key fob and leaving.

Light sensors measure the car’s dimensions and cameras photograph the vehicle from several angles. Once that is complete, the car is lowered into a parking vault, where it is moved into a parking bay. The cars are parked side-to-side and bumper-to-bumper, two levels deep. Special machinery allows access to the cars in narrow and limited spaces. Upon returning, the driver simply swipes the same credit card or key fob at the kiosk, and the car is returned to the entry room, which is supposed to take no more than two minutes.

Crazily enough, this behemoth will cost only about half as much to build as a conventional garage, and the director of planning for Automotion, the company building it, points out that it cuts down on the emissions cars create while circling a typical garage looking for a spot.

I guess if we still have to build some parking garages, we might as well build them this way: cheaper, more efficient, hidden underground, and helping to fund a public park. Not to mention making you feel like a badass, futuristic evil genius when you park.